Most everyone knows that we should move to improve and maintain our muscular strength, as well as our heart and cardiovascular health. But perhaps we forget about the necessity and benefits of movement for healthy bones. This is particularly important as we age, as falls and bone fractures become very debilitating. Preventing these adverse effects by gaining and maintaining our muscle and bone strength is the key to improving our quality of life as well as longevity.

It makes sense that we achieve most of our bone growth as children, but very important is the fact that the amount of bone mass (how much total we have) and density (strength and durability) accrued then directly affects us throughout our lives. This is especially true for women, and encouraging vigorous physical activity for young girls is incredibly imperative to improve their health throughout their lives.

Of course, while most of our bone gains are as children, that doesn’t mean we should give up as adults. We can make very substantial improvements with training, just as we can improve our muscle and heart health.

How bones grow

There is a never-ending balance of bone growth and loss, with specialized cells called osteoblasts (which build bone) and osteoclasts (which reduce bone). And it can be pretty complicated. For example, our diet is important—various vitamins and minerals and proteins are necessary. However, most adults not on restrictive diets can meet those minimums fairly easily.

For most of us, the primary thing we need to understand is that our bones are shaped and built based on how much load and force is applied to them. This is called Wolff’s law. Fundamentally, it really is “use it or lose it.” Osteoporosis and osteopenia (low bone density) are a direct result of bones not experiencing the forces and loads necessary for our bodies to maintain them. Plain and simple, our bones need exercise, and without it, they wither away.

The best exercise for bone health

Any type of load-bearing movement (on your legs or through your arms) is helpful to an extent. In an extreme example, if you were restricted to your bed for weeks, then simply standing and walking is enough stimulus.

More commonly, when you get back into a workout routine after a long period off, you shouldn’t jump back into what you did before. You don’t need to use the same levels of resistance or volume of activities to benefit. You need to build up to it again. This means less chance of injury, but also you simply don’t need that intensity yet. Your muscles, heart, lungs and bones aren’t ready.

Soon they will be, though, and that’s when progressing the intensity and volume is important. Once you’ve gotten used to a level of training, then it’s necessary to increase what you are doing to improve again—whether it’s in amount or length (as in running or jumping rope for longer periods) or using heavier weights for improvement in your body’s growth. This is well-known in regards to our muscular and cardiovascular system, and it’s also true for our bones.

That being said, it is absolutely fine to maintain your regimen because even “staying the same” means improvement as you age. If you are still able to maintain the same exercise at 70 years old as when you were 40, then that is great! But you still have to improve to a certain point, and the majority of us still have a lot of room to grow.

If you are just starting, or getting back into it, you’ll want to do some repetitive weight-bearing work to acclimate and build a foundation for more intense work. Some easy jogging—working up to 30 minutes three times a week—would work well or jumping rope for a total period of 15 to 20 minutes. (Several sets of two to three minutes with one-minute rest periods are great.) This will provide you with a great base to do more.

And it’s obvious that strength training using free weights, bands, machines or your own body is useful and necessary, and it is the underpinning of building your muscles and bones.

Bone strength-building body-weight routine

The following is a body-weight-only routine as an example of a more rigorous exercise regimen that can be done without weights or equipment.

It is more intense because of the techniques you’ll use to perform each move, which emphasize loading your legs, hips, back and arms with increased force from jumps and “drops.” You’ll be controlling the forces with what are called “negatives,” or the eccentric contraction of your muscles. In other words, you’re lowering your body under loads in a controlled way under higher and faster forces.

And that control of force is the primary concern here. So start easier by:

  • Not going as far into an exercise range of motion
  • Controlling the speed of the force
  • Doing fewer repetitions
  • Resting longer in between repetitions and in between sets

Performing this routine once or twice a week is enough because of the intensity of the force created by the movements, especially if you are already active in other training.

Disclaimer: Even though you can adjust this routine in the ways specified above, please only perform this routine if you have a good base of strength training already. This is provided as an example of how you can progress body-weight exercise to further improve bone health, not as a beginning regimen.


Small Hop From Standing to Lunge Forward

In this exercise, you’ll be doing a forward lunge but from a small hop. This increases the forces as compared to just starting from the normal starting position.

Start with a very small hop and increase the jump as you improve and get used to it. Again, you should be controlled and steady as you do the repetition. If you feel out of control, then you’ve done enough repetitions.

Perform this for up to three sets of eight, with two minutes of rest in between sets.

Small Hop From Standing to Lunge Backward

This is now hopping back into a lunge position. You’ll notice a different sensation of force at your knees and ankles. Again, just as in the lunge forward, be controlled and steady.

Perform this for up to three sets of eight, with two minutes of rest in between sets.

Small Hop From Standing to Side Squat

You’ll continue loading your legs and hips from a different direction as you drop down into a side squat. One detail here is to work on landing more onto the ball of your foot initially and then distributing your weight on your entire foot.

You don’t have to drop down all the way at first, just do what you can. You also can take your time and use your hands to stand up again. The primary emphasis is on the controlled drop.

Perform this for up to three sets of six, with two minutes of rest in between sets.

Eccentric One-Leg Squat

The last lower-body and back exercise here is a one-leg squat.

You’ll notice in the video that it is performed by rising up onto the ball of your foot first, then dropping down into a squat on one leg. Again, you don’t have to drop all the way down, and even if you are comfortable, you should use your hands for balance and reach and place them on the ground as you drop.

As you improve, you won’t need to do this as much. Also, you can stand up on both legs as needed.

Perform this for up to three sets of six, with two minutes of rest in between sets.

Tall Kneeling Fall Forward Into Negative Push-Up

This exercise loads your upper body and spine well, as you control your fall from kneeling into the push-up position.

Notice in the video how you can adjust your starting height and gradually increase the forces as desired. As you contact the ground with your hands, do so with bent elbows—landing with straight arms can be too much for the elbow joints.

Perform this for up to three sets of eight, with two minutes of rest in between sets.

Eccentric One-Arm Row

This exercise is performed in the video using gymnastic rings, but you can do this at home with a broomstick or other strong support across two chairs or other similar setup.

Here, you’ll start at the top of a “rowing” position and shift over to one side as far as you can, then do a controlled drop. Pull yourself back up to the top position and repeat on the other side, alternating until your set is done.

Please don’t fall hard onto your back! You should either be with your arms straight and your back off the floor at the bottom or stop just short of the ground with your arms slightly bent.

Perform this for up to three sets of six (each arm), with two minutes of rest in between sets.

Photo credit: jacoblund, Thinkstock
Video credit: Courtesy of GMB Fitness